2018 Snowsports Hall of Fame: Lonny Vanatta’s talent was once-in-a-generation special
VAIL — One of the most important annual celebrations of the state’s snowsports industry, the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame Induction Gala — held this year in Vail on Saturday, Oct. 6 — is a unique opportunity to meet, mix and mingle with the men and women who have shaped the Colorado ski and snowboard industry. Thanks to the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame, the Vail Daily is publishing profiles of all of this year’s hall of fame inductees.
Once in a generation, there comes a home-grown talent so special that it takes another generation to truly appreciate that talent. Such is the case with Steamboat Springs’ Lonny Vanatta.
Vanatta was raised on the slopes of Mount Werner and historic Howelsen Hill, growing up in the shadow of the town’s giants. Buddy Werner was going to the Olympics when Lonny was learning to race, and Howelsen Hill molded him into a tough, fearless technical skier.
Skiers like Werner helped craft the thick Olympic atmosphere that still cloaks Steamboat, and as he grew and improved, it all seemed there for Vanatta’s taking. This seemed especially true when he was named to the U.S. Ski Team at age 18.
But on his way to the big leagues, things began to get complicated. The mid-1970s were an unsettled time in the politics of American ski racing, and Vanatta was not invited back to the U.S. Team the following year. His Olympic future was brought to an abrupt and devastating halt. Looking back today, it seems impossible but somehow, the U.S. Ski Team had overlooked Vanatta.
He initially considered retirement when he was not renamed to the team. He had other options, including attending college on a scholarship. However, the option Vanatta chose would come to define him as a competitor, electing to compete on the World Pro Ski Tour.
Ironically, at the same time, many accomplished ski racers in Europe were also being jettisoned by their national federations for being too old. Back then, 30 was retirement age for ski racers, despite the fact that the popularity of the sport was growing rapidly.
Bob Beattie’s World Pro Skiing experiment emerged, and the talent came out of the woodwork. Dozens of established ski stars, age 30-plus tough guys and unknown or forgotten wunderkind made the new tour an instant success.
What Vanatta found on the Pro Tour was a fun, sometimes wild, world and one that paid, a significant consideration in a time when Olympic athletes had to maintain their amateur status. Vanatta was free to collect prize money and take endorsements, and he quickly rose through the world-class field of competitors to become the top American on the tour.
Vanatta placed 11th in his first season, winning four slalom races the following winter. He went on to win six races in the 1980-81 campaign, claiming the season-long slalom title and placing third overall.
The money Vanatta earned on the Pro Tour provided him with a tremendous headstart in life. While it may not have been the path he longed for at the time, it would prove to be the best choice and best avenue he could have taken.
Following his retirement from the tour in 1984, he coached the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club for 17 years before forming his own outfitting business, Vanatta Outfitters. It is safe to say Vanatta’s legacy will not be measured by one decision back in 1978 but, rather, his reaction to it.
Copy courtesy of the Steamboat Pilot & Today.